The space shuttle Endeavour launched on its bittersweet final journey Monday, with wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and hundreds of thousands of others watching from one coast of Florida to the other.
It blasted into the sky with a rattling roar, piercing a cloud cover and disappearing from sight in less than a minute.
Soon, space shuttles will disappear from the skies altogether. After Endeavour lands June 1, Atlantis will fly the final launch of the space shuttle era, possibly in July. That will mark the last chance for Tampa Bay residents to look eastward and see the distant fire of a shuttle streaking across the sky, an image that has become as iconic in Florida as Mickey Mouse ears.
Endeavour's launch Monday was all the more poignant because its commander is Mark Kelly, husband of Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman shot at a public appearance in January by a gunman who left six dead.
Kelly considered giving up his spot on the mission, but eventually decided to fly, with his wife's support. On Monday, just before the engines roared to life, Kelly said from the shuttle flight deck that, "It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop."
Kelly took his wife's wedding ring with him into space, which he has done before, and also left his own wedding ring with Giffords, who wore it on a necklace chain.
The shuttle countdown was smooth. A chipped shuttle tile was easily repaired. The clouds were thin and posed no threat.
Shuttle launches have always been popular spectacles, but the second-to-the-last one drew an especially large crowd that was forecast to reach half a million people.
To the south toward Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, recreational vehicles and cars already were lined up along the Banana and Indian rivers late Sunday. And signs outside area businesses cheered Endeavour on with messages of "Godspeed" and "go."
Giffords flew in Sunday from Houston, where she has been undergoing rehab for a gunshot wound to the head; she was shot at a Jan. 8 political event in her Tucson, Ariz., hometown. Her recovery has been so remarkable that doctors approved the trip to Cape Canaveral.
On this emotional mission, there even was drama behind the science experiment, the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. The device was the handiwork of scientists from many countries, but for a while NASA planned to mothball it in the wake of the accident that destroyed the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-person crew. It was not considered essential.
But the project was revived, and now astronauts are taking it to the International Space Station.
It's a particle physics device that will look for clues about "dark matter," and evidence of antimatter, by evaluating energy particles hurtling through the cosmos.
Endeavour is the youngest of NASA's shuttle fleet. It was built to replace Challenger, lost in a 1986 launch accident. Endeavour first flew in 1992, and one of the astronauts on board was Bruce Melnick, a graduate of Clearwater High School.
NASA is retiring its three remaining space shuttles after 30 years to concentrate on interplanetary travel. The space agency wants to hand over to private companies the business of getting crews and cargo to the space station. At least one company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., said it can get astronauts to the space station within three years of getting NASA approval.
After Endeavour lands, the spacecraft will be processed and eventually sent to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Discovery, which already has flown its last flight, will go to a Smithsonian Institution facility near Washington, D.C.
Atlantis will fly the last space shuttle mission, and that spacecraft will remain for visitors to see at the Kennedy Space Center.
Information from the Associated Press and was used in this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.